Facing up to history

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Cosmopolis column in The Hindu Business Line BLINK weekend magazine (published 13 August, 2016)

Earlier this month, the president of Taiwan offered an apology to the island-nation’s indigenous inhabitants. “For the four centuries of pain and mistreatment you have endured, I apologise to you on behalf of the government,” Tsai Ing-wen said. Until the 17th century, Taiwan was largely populated by Austronesian peoples. Ing-wen described the subsequent settlement of the island by people from the Chinese mainland and the subjugation of the original residents. “Four hundred years ago, there were already people living in Taiwan. These first inhabitants lived their lives and had their own languages, cultures, customs, and domains. But then, without their consent, another group of people arrived on these shores, and in the course of history, took everything from the first inhabitants who, on the land they have known most intimately, became displaced, foreign, non-mainstream, and marginalised.”

That process of brutal displacement occurred in many other countries in recent centuries. In 2008, the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued an apology to aborigines in his country. Later that same year, the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologised for his country’s prior policy of attempting to assimilate Native American groups.

Ing-wen has a grandparent from the Paiwan aboriginal tribe. After successive waves of migration from China, indigenous people now make up roughly 2 per cent of the island’s population. They face discrimination, their communities struggle economically, and their languages are in steep decline. Ing-wen’s apology recognised the suffering of indigenous people and pledged the resources of the state to defending their rights. It was also a tactful political act. Her Democratic Progressive Party wants formal independence for Taiwan from China. Embracing the indigenous past is one way of more clearly delineating Taiwanese national identity.

Still, this kind of public apology is necessary. In so many societies around the world, minority groups grapple with deeply unequal circumstances that are the legacy of being conquered or subsumed by expansionist settlers, empires, and nation-states. Countries as disparate as Argentina, Russia, Japan, and India are home to various indigenous communities that warrant the protection of the state. A body of international law developed in the late 20th century seeks to guarantee the rights of indigenous peoples, guarding their livelihoods, modes of cultural expression, and political freedoms.

I agree with indigenousness or “indigeneity” as a legal category for protecting minority groups (its opponents emphasise the “principle of proximity,” the notion that people who live within the same society need to get over their historical grievances and get on with things). From the perspective of somebody in the “mainstream” of a society, it’s very easy to banish the historic crimes against minorities to some remote, alien time. But conditions in the present often stem directly from atrocities in the past. The brutal conquest of the Midwestern plains by US forces in the 19th century may be a matter of curious historical trivia for most Americans, but for the Lakota people living in depressed reservations in North and South Dakota, those events still shape the contours of their everyday lives.

I do, however, worry about the term indigenous as a more general concept. I’m uncomfortable with the way it conceives of people. Indigenous groups often appear to us as relics of the past, a pastiche of costumes and customs frozen in time. There seems to me something contrived, for example, in the way they are trotted out for tourists in parts of India to perform their “traditional” dances and songs. It’s not so much that these traditions are inauthentic, but that we — people from non-tribal communities — imagine their culture as a collection of quaint, ancient practices, with none of the dynamism and innovation with which we imagine our modern selves. A risk of the indigenous tag is that it pickles a people, preserving their identity in stasis.

Another problem is that no human beings are truly indigenous to anywhere. Even the Andamanese of the Andaman Islands — a textbook indigenous people — were coastal migrants in the distant past. Irish mythology tells us of wave upon wave of different invaders who came to settle in what is now Ireland, each group displacing the other (the original Irish were the Fomorians, a vanished race of ogres and giants). The Nahuatl-speaking Aztecs, who were defeated by the Spanish in the 16th century, themselves were relative newcomers to central Mexico, having only migrated south in the sixth century. Historians continue to debate the “Aryan invasion theory” in India just as they try to puzzle out the nature of the colonisation of Britain in the Dark Ages by the mist-wreathed Angles, Saxons, Friesians, and Jutes.

Living as we do in the era of the nation-state, the migrations and displacements that were routine in the pre-modern world are less possible now. Systems of law erect borders, guarantee property and land rights, and pin people in place. Our understanding of being “native” is coloured by this status quo, projecting a very modern sense of belonging deep into the past.

“The success of one ethnic people can be built on the suffering of another,” Ing-wen said in her speech. “Unless we deny that we are a country of justice, we must face up to this history.” This “facing up to history” requires humility; it is an act of modesty worthy of support. But it also behoves us to be suspicious of those who make claims on history, those who espouse exclusive ownership of land and nation. The irony of the term “indigenous” is how often it evokes a narrative that belies the permanence of people and place. It reminds us that movement, not rootedness, is the abiding condition of human history and identity.

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